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Robert Coucher, April 2011

Why buy new when you can go bespoke?

Robert Coucher

 
Just think of the hours of pleasure to be had agonising over how best to uprate the engine, whether to add a five-speed ’box or air-con
There is a lot of driving in this issue, from as far afield as New Zealand, Florida and Continental Europe. There is quite a bit on classic car modification to upset the purist, and a road-and-track test of the new McLaren MP4-12C versus the legendary McLaren F1.

This wide canvas had me pondering why we love cars in general and classic cars in particular. Good moderns work so well and offer such high levels of luxury and comfort, while modern supercars are computer-game fast and full of driver aids, which allow mortal drivers to ape racing drivers. So why do grown men continue to raid their piggy banks and blow vast sums on out-of-date machinery?

Think of the mechanical watch analogy: the Japanese had all but killed the well-established Swiss watch industry with the launch of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970s, which still sell by the gazillion. But men (mostly men) still want less accurate, handmade mechanical wristwatches, and would never consider quartz.

In a similar vein, as modern cars continue to improve, more classic cars are bought by enthusiasts either to add to collections, for historic motor racing and rallying, or for the simple pleasure of driving down to the pub for Sunday lunch. As classic cars have generally increased in value, there is a degree of ‘investment’ thinking going on as well. Or should that be investment justification? But let’s face it, even if classics dropped in value like depreciating moderns, we’d still covet them.

A day spent exploring the new McLaren on a private test circuit brought all this into focus. The MP4-12C is probably one of the ten best cars around; almost certainly one of the top five supercars. It is engineering perfection, even if a chap has to remove a leather driving glove to activate the remote sensor that opens the scissor door. Your driving ‘experience’ is then tailored by twiddling two dashboard knobs. This knobbing changes the Mac from a comfortable cruiser into a razor-sharp track weapon in which you thump the gearchanges through at nine thou’. It moves the game onwards with its huge power, light weight, massive performance and impressive drivability.

Yet I am left questioning whether I would stump up £168,500 on the MP4-12C. Or would I put it into a classic? No intellectual leap required: for that much there is a huge amount of classic car enjoyment to be had. I would do what a large number of classic car nuts do – buy a good example, then have it stripped and rebuilt to my exact requirements.

Let’s take a Jaguar E-type, that great British sports car celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A really good FHC can be had for around 50 grand. That leaves 100 grand to have it completely redone by a specialist, leaving over ten grand in the kitty to spend on the woman in your life as a peace offering. Just think of the hours of intense pleasure to be had agonising over how best to uprate the engine, whether to add four-pot calipers, a five-speed ’box or air conditioning. Then how best to improve the rubbery steering rack with solid mounts, and modifying the rear suspension to eradicate the notorious rear-end steer. You see! Already the games have commenced.

In this issue we revisit Miles Collier at his world-class Collier Collection in Florida where some of the most important automobiles are housed for posterity. This time Porschephile Delwyn Mallett is there to drive a mundane-looking hearing-aid-beige Volkswagen Beetle. Naturally this is no ordinary Beetle, but rather a heavily tweaked Q-car. What makes it so interesting is that Miles Collier is one of the leading intellectuals when it comes to collector and classic cars, but it is abundantly clear that he enjoys his uprated Beetle as much as some of his ultra-rare and valuable museum pieces.

We also went as far as New Zealand to drive the good Dr Beacham’s Jaguar Mk2, which is an example of the outer edge of the envelope in terms of radical modification. It might not appeal to everyone, with its modern engine and drivetrain, but it illustrates what can be done by applying some imagination.

Having mentioned the infernal ‘investment’ word, how many times have you seen a car advertised for sale ‘at a fraction of the cost of the restoration’? Yes, I think a good deal of the enjoyment with classic cars is the opportunity to restore and rebuild them to your exact specification, even if it costs dearly.

Certainly, you can specify a faux carbonfibre dash for your modern car, or make the tough call on whether to have its exhaust tips chromed or finished in matt black. But that’s nowhere near as much fun as having a good classic car built to your personal requirements.

Robert Coucher
Robert has grown up with classic cars, having owned a Lancia Aurelia B20GT, Alfa Romeo Giulietta and a Porsche 356C. He currently uses his 1955 Jaguar XK140 as his daily driver, and is a founding editor of this magazine.

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